Salsa and Be Counted

The U.S. Census has it all wrong. The question is not whether you are "white (non-Hispanic)," "black (non-Hispanic)," or "Hispanic." The question is not even whether you are Latino, non-Latino, or none of the above. According to the Bacardi Salsa Congress 2000, the real question is: How do you dance salsa? Show the census takers how you mark the clave, and that's all the information they'll need, to know where you're from. Three years ago in Puerto Rico, a group of professional salseros founded what they called the World Salsa Congress. In 1998 generous support from a certain manufacturer of rum edited out the "world" and added "Bacardi." Still the congress continues to attract salsa dancers from more than 36 countries and has spawned a tour that this year brings salsa pros to 25 cities across the globe.

The Salsa World Tour hit Miami for the first time this month, bringing to town dancers from Argentina, Italy, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, and New York City. A kind of census in motion, the exhibition dances gave a sense of the global state of salsa and of the style we can call our own.

The crowd was sparse as Miami's Salsa Congress got under way on a Friday night at Club Amnesia in South Beach. Unlike salsa-starved cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Chicago(where fanatics memorize the schedule of which club goes tropical each night of the week), Miami offers limitless choices for the niche salsero. Even with the venerable Gran Combo entertaining, this salsa event was one among many.

The first couple to perform, Sergio and Sonia Sampaolli from Italy, added little to Miami's already well-populated salsa scene. Concentrating on fast footwork at the expense of sensuous movement of the torso and hips, the Italians looked stilted. Add to that the expression of near panic on Sonia's face, and the passionate amateurs at Club Mystique in the Airport Hilton look better all the time. "Oh," complained a Cuban companion, "if you could only see how they do this at the Tropicana -- and with so much more swing."

Argentines Silvio Gonzalez and Sandra Ferreira followed the Italians in the buttoned-up dress and suit of the tango dancer. Gonzalez and Ferreira performed tango just long enough to raise the question of whether Argentines considered salsa simply tango by another name. Then Sandra doffed her short wig and ripped off her dark dress to expose a glittery wave of fringe underneath, and Silvio threw off his hat and vest to reveal a shiny shirt and pants.

Both the Argentine and the Italian couples performed in a style more akin to competitive ballroom dance than club salsa. As if to make up for the difference, both women appeared to be wearing the dark body paint used by ballroom "Latin" competitors, literally called "Latin color." The dusky hue and glitter could no more than distract from a certain lack of sabor.

With no need for any color enhancement, the Palladium Legends, a wheat-tone male duo from Puerto Rico and New York City, took the stage. Well-nigh 70 years old, Mike Ramos and Freddie Rios did indeed make a name for themselves at Manhattan's legendary Palladium Ballroom, back when promoter Federico Pangani hosted the biggest and most competitive dance contests in mambo and cha-cha-cha. Wearing charcoal pinstripe suits and black-and-white spats so shiny you could comb your hair in the reflection, the two gentlemen shuffled and stomped, at times showing off footwork so intricate the spats flashed like fireworks across the floor. Over the course of their considerable years, the Palladium Legends have learned to combine dignified elegance with a rakish swagger without ever losing the clave.

Fellow New Yorkers Jayson Molina and Brenda Byrd evoked one of the Big Apple's other legendary nightclubs, the Savoy. Dressed in a pink-poodle poof skirt, the copper-skin Byrd's costume suggested the Fifties jitterbug, but the lightning-fast footwork, hints of the Charleston, and high-speed flips created a hybrid of salsa with the lindy hop or, as people say today, swing.

Flying even faster, Johnny Vazquez and Olivia Dasso not only lived up to, but possibly surpassed, the West Coast's reputation for the spectacular. Dancing can be dangerous in Los Angeles, where a first dance in a disco sometimes requires a seat belt, and salsa competitions at the major clubs often approach the acrobatic level of the Cirque du Soleil. Featured dancers in the Chayanne/Vanessa Williams vehicle Dance with Me, Vazquez and Dasso played pure Hollywood. During the slow, introductory guaguancó, Vazquez surreptitiously flipped Dasso head over heels, flicked her skirt limp about her inverted hips, then used her nether parts as a bongo. Tricks with the gluteus maximus often mark the finale of more tepid routines, but this was the introduction. The ensuing show made a good case for the inclusion of salsa dance as an Olympic sport. Dasso's facial expressions kept up with her feet, shifting from smile to smirk to wink at warp speed.

With the air still vibrating, a percussionist played a live guaguancó to prepare for the entrance of Miami's own Salsa Lovers studio. Owner Rene Gueites, himself once a ballroom competitor, marked in place beside one of his male instructors while a line of young women in fringed dresses rotated their hips and chests in opposite directions to the drum. As the drum gave way to recorded salsa, a host of additional instructors and long-time students flooded the floor to form a circle, or rueda. Rather than flips and lifts, the entire group of Salsa Lovers executed tight, intricate turns. A spokesman for what he calls "Miami-style salsa," Gueites eschews rhythmic pyrotechnics in favor of accessible moves that a mass of ordinary people can feel comfortable learning.

By standardizing a series of salsa figures according to the placement of hands and feet, Gueites has devised a system in which anyone who sticks with the program can learn to look good on the dance floor. In six years of operation, Salsa Lovers has cranked out nearly 30,000 technicians of the turn, with as many as 400 people showing up for a single class session. Although the synchronized motion of human bodies shifting in and out of a circle can be fascinating to watch, the Salsa Lovers' stage presence was decidedly unspectacular. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Salsa still is a vibrant, popular dance with limitless variations in Miami and across the world. The final meeting of the Bacardi Salsa Congress 2000 will take place in Puerto Rico in July, bringing together delegates from every stage in the salsa world. Like representative democracy, the pleasures of the professional salsa congress can sometimes feel a little too vicarious. Whatever comes of that summit, people will continue to dance salsa in their own neighborhoods in their own more or less spectacular way. However global salsa may become, the barrio will always be the homeland, and the salsero the syncopated citizen of the street.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado